22 Jul 2009

Astroturf and Politics

In the ongoing war of words over who should get water in the San Joaquin valley (and Delta), every interest group claims that its interests are more important than those of others.

(Why a war of words? Because the decision on how to allocate the water is being made through political and judicial channels, not economic channels, i.e., markets. If water was allocated by price, we'd hear nothing but the sounds of smooth efficiency :)

In this war, some agricultural interests have hired a PR firm to create the impression of grassroots support (e.g., the Latino Water Coalition). The trouble is that this support is not from "the People" but from paid hacks.

So what's the opposite of a grassroots political movement?
astroturfing [is] a "program that involves the manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them." In other words, rich people with a lot of money but no popular support for their cause (getting richer), will create the illusion of broad public support by half truths, manipulation, disinformation, spin doctoring, creating false impressions, and cash. It also involves ghost writing op-ed columns and letters to the editor from little people, to generate the perception there is widespread public support for the client’s position. Grassroots is bottom up. Astroturf is top down.
And you may have noticed that these astroturfers are getting a lot of support from Arnie. (He's already sympathetic to the interests of Valley farmers, but media coverage gives him an excuse to promise more water. Interestingly, he's willing to give water to help SOME people in the state while others -- fishermen -- are left with no help.)

Besides the interesting manipulation in these water fights, there is the interesting question of who is doing the manipulation and how they are doing it. The PR firm behind the Latino Water Coalition (Burson-Marsteller) is the same firm that has advised Blackwater USA on how to spin accidental killing of civilians, the Nigerian government on how to improve their image after killing activists, the firm behind Three Mile Island, and -- get this -- AIG on their public image. Dubbed "the PR firm from Hell," it seems that B-M is one company that will do ANYTHING for enough money. Not the kind of people you want looking after your kids.

Bottom Line: All's fair in love and war, and those fighting the war over water are willing to lie and deceive to get what they want. Just remember that it may not be what YOU want.